Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), a wicked satire of power and social politics, is the confident second feature from the director and his screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor. Coming off of the critical success of Citizen Ruth (1996), a savage and darkly satirical take on the politics surrounding the abortion debate, Payne found the story for his next film in the novel by Tom Perrotta; it satirized the election process through the overheated incubator of a high school campaign for student body president, where favoritism, manipulation and apathy trump democracy at every turn.
For the role of the passionately dedicated and somewhat patronizing civics teacher Jim McAllister, Payne cast Matthew Broderick. It was Broderick’s earnestness and his straight-arrow quality that Payne found perfect for the part. While he had not actually seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) before making the film, Payne was well aware that his casting would reverberate off that beloved character, especially when it came to McAllister’s idealism overcome by his frustrations and shortcomings.
For Tracy Flick, the high school overachiever who sees winning as merely an act of will, he chose rising young actress Reese Witherspoon, who had shown great range and ambition in such films as The Man in the Moon (1991), Freeway (1996) and Pleasantville (1998). Though over twenty at the time, she is completely convincing as both a chirpy, eager-to-please high school senior and as a fearsome, at times emotionally volcanic competitor. Her mix of innocence and drive makes the sexual component of the story (dialed back from the novel, according to Payne, but still a significant element of the plot) all the more startling.
Plays Monday, September 5 on Turner Classic Movies